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They're All-Stars because they never stop working at their craft

   07-11-2017

For Robbie Ray, it was a matter of regaining trust in his curveball.

But nearly every player in the 2017 All-Star Game can pinpoint some adjustment or insight that helped them raise their performance to this level and it comes as no surprise that those reasons almost invariably involve determination, hard work and perseverance.

Ray, a 25-year-old left-hander, didn't post a winning record in any of his first three seasons in the majors, but this year he's become one of the National League's elite pitchers. The Brentwood, Tenn., native is 8-4 with a 2.97 ERA and third in the league with 141 strikeouts in 106 innings for the Diamondbacks this season.

“I felt like it was there, that I had the stuff to perform to this level, but it was just a matter of putting it all together and making it happen,” Ray said on Monday. “The thing for me was really working hard in my off-season programs, really harder than I ever have. The thing that motivated me was that last year I felt like I had really good stuff but it wasn't really coming together.

“The biggest thing for me was adding another pitch. I brought back my curveball and that's become a huge pitch for me. I also made minor tweaks in my delivery and sped up my timing a little bit, which allowed me to be more consistent.”

Ray is one of 28 first-time All-Stars, a particularly high number in a game that honors its superstars every year, but also a number that demonstrates the high level of young talent coming into the game and the intense level of competitiveness among the players.

Michael Brantley, who missed much of the past two seasons, including the Indians' pennant-winning run, is healthy for the first time in three years and returning to the All-Star Game for the second time in his nine-year career. He's batting .297 with five home runs, 15 doubles and eight stolen bases.

“Rehab was long, but I couldn't be here at the All-Star Game now without the doctors and medical staff who took the time and effort to get me back on the field,” the 30-year-old outfielder said. “This is a byproduct of them and how hard I worked with them. I'm just really thankful to all the people who helped along the way.

“I was very confident I would get back. Yes, you have doubts, you have bad days and bad weeks in rehab, but without that confidence and inner drive you won't bounce back.”

Dallas Keuchel, who won the Cy Young Award in 2015 when he went 20-8 with a 2.45 ERA over a career-high 246 innings, never got untracked in 2016, but he's returned to form this year and is 9-0 over 11 starts with a 1.67 ERA for the first-place Astros. The 29-year-old left-hander was voted into the game in player balloting, but he won't be pitching due to a pinched nerve in his nect.

Nonetheless, he was honored to be selected and was happy to make the trip to Miami to be with his fellow all-stars and enjoy the festivities. Keuchel said the off year in 2016 makes his turnaround this season even more rewarding.

“The bad times make you appreciate when you do well,” he said. “When you put pressure on yourself to get back from an injury or whatever you appreciate what you've done to get back to where you can be. For me, this offseason was about getting healthy and resting.”

Alex Wood, another first-time all-star, is 10-0 with a 1.67 ERA and 97 strikeouts over 80.2 innings. He credits staff ace Clayton Kershaw for driving him to improve and his overall leadership on the first-place Dodgers.

“If people could only see Clayton's focus on start days. It takes a lot of mental capacity to get focused and lock in the way he does,” Wood said of his fellow left-hander. “It makes you raise your own bar.

“It doesn't just rub off on me; it rubs off on all the other starters, the relievers and even the position players. He holds guys to a certain standard that he holds himself to. He kind of pushes guys, so it's been really fun to be part of that.”

Be sure to watch the 88th All-Star Game tonight at 8:00 PM ET on FOX.